(Editor’s note: This is the first of a four-part series about fire towers in Missouri.)

Throughout the rivers and hills of the Ozarks that people travel, they find various ways to find enjoyment.

Some hunt and fish while often a drive in the fall with the trees changing colors provides enjoyment.

This is the view from Shannondale Tower a few years ago. The tower is normally closed now.

For one group, it is the forest lookout towers that have caught their attention.

Among the conservation people the towers have always been special. Chris Polka and Bob Frakes, although never having worked in conservation, have spent decades visiting, documenting, and uncovering the stories behind these forest sentinels.

Counting Missouri Department of Conservation and U.S. Forest Service sites, along with a few private towers, there once were hundreds of towers in Missouri. Today, 70 or so remain standing. This leaves the historic sites to be documented and a few mysteries found along the way.

Both Polka and Frakes have found the towers to be a hobby for a lifetime.

Polka grew up in suburban St. Louis and still works there as a technology guy. It was while attending the University of Missouri-Rolla that the Ozarks caught his eye. His original interest was hiking, which he still enjoys today. 

While hiking the Clifty Creek Natural Area in Maries County, he noticed a picnic table at the Freeburg Towersite and pulled in for a snack.

Since the steps were not blocked or the tower fenced, he surmised that climbing was allowed.

Polka recounts this was not only the first tower he climbed, but the second and third and fourth, all in the same day. It seems open heights made him nervous, and several attempts were needed to come up with a successful climbing strategy.

For Frakes, his tower interest began at Mudlick Tower in Sam A. Baker State Park. He often spent much of the summertime at his grandparents’ farm south of Patterson. It was on one of these visits, and at a young age, that he visited the park and the tower there.

He recalls he did not make it all the way up but did “clear the trees to feel the breeze.” Later, on a Current River canoe trip, he spotted the Shannondale Tower, made his way up, and took in the view that hooked him on a lifetime hobby.

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